She spoke from experience. Having worked for 15 years at the state central heating company, she had little faith in Romania's ramshackle pipes and boilers. They could not be trusted to work in Bucharest, she said, let alone Moldavia - the portion of Romania facing the newly independent republic of Moldova across the former Soviet border.
Her concern was echoed by the passengers sharing my compartment on the six-hour journey north to Suceava, the old princely capital of Moldavia. I was on my way to visit the quartet of painted monasteries that lie among the foothills of the eastern Carpathians.
In late spring and summer, all four monasteries - Voronet, Sucevita, Humor and Moldovita - can be easily reached by hiking along well-marked tracks which cross the spruce-covered landscape of bears and lynx. At this time of the year, travel is a far more treacherous proposition. The monasteries are remote, the trails impassable, the campsites closed and the bus timetable designed for maximum inconvenience.
Whatever the temporary hardships, the Orthodox monasteries are too magnificent to miss. Built in the 15th and 16th centuries when Moldavia was Christendom's last refuge from the rampaging Ottoman empire, each is adorned with biblical scenes of epic proportions. Uniquely, the sacred tableaux cover not only the inside walls, but every inch of the exteriors, their radiant colours shielded from the corrosive winds by vast wooden eaves.
By the time the train limped into Suceava, my slight trepidation had been eased by Diana, a student returning home for half-term. Aghast at my poorly laid plans, she invited me to stay at her family house in Radauti. Her father, Luca, a local doctor, owned a summer cabin in Sucevita and would be happy to accompany me - weather permitting.
Ten miles from the Ukrainian border and within striking distance of the monasteries, Radauti is a worthwhile base. The next morning, to whet my appetite, I explored the town's 14th-century church - the oldest in Moldavia. Although the frescoes in the dank interior had been obliterated by centuries of candle-smoke, it held other treasures, including, in one darkened corner, an ornate casket where the bones of a saint lay on golden brocade.
That afternoon we set off for Sucevita in Luca's silver Dacia, Romania's functional equivalent of the Lada or Trabant. The snowfall had reduced the road to a trough of sludge a few yards across and the only traffic was a procession of carts, loaded with logs and pulled by a brace of horses with scarlet tassles swinging from their bridles. From the window, I saw gypsies' houses painted in their lucky colours of red and green and villagers balancing precariously as they shovelled snow from their roofs.
Slowly, the whitewashed cornfields yielded to the slopes of hills which in summer months are dressed in wild mushrooms and mountain flowers. Luca dropped me off a short distance from the monastery; he had jobs to attend to at the cabin further along the valley.
Sucevita is the largest of the monasteries and, like the others, protected by UNESCO. Enclosed within a formidable outer wall of battlements and turrets, it is more castle than church. The stillness of my approach - broken only by the competing cries of wood pigeons and crows - ill-prepared me for the scenes of infernal torment as I entered the courtyard.
Ahead, stretching 20 feet along the north wall, a Ladder of Virtue ascended towards heaven. A host of angels assisted righteous souls to the celestial city, while monstrous demons wrenched sinners from the rungs and cast them into the fiery pit. Beneath the fresco, nuns swathed in black passed to and fro like figures brought magically to life from the walls. One unlocked the monastery doors for me to step inside, but its cave-like chill took my breath away and I left quickly, shivering.
At his cabin, Luca had lit a fire. Dispensing whisky and fruit, he talked of his patients' ailments and Moldavia's timber industry which is polluting the rivers and diminishing the forest with indecent haste. Night had fallen by the time we made the journey home but the rickety traffic had not abated and our way back was illuminated by the single lanterns tied to each cart. Twice, as the car edged past nervous mares, we slid off the road and got wedged firmly in the snow.
The other monasteries lack the sweeping grandeur of Sucevita but are no less breathtaking. Seen in a morning sun full of spring promise, Voronet's Last Judgement dazzles the eye with its mysterious blue pigment, the exact composition of which has yet to be determined. From here, it is only a few miles along the valley to Humor (a walk possible even in winter). The most modest of the monasteries, its tranquil setting belies the scenes of frenzied slaughter on the walls: Turkish heads roll under the axe as the infidel fall victim to Christian wrath.
A few days later, a wizened stallholder at Radauti's weekly market refused to sell me a dozen wilting flowers for my hosts. "Twelve is for dead people," he admonished. But his suggestion of 13 blooms gave rise to my own latent superstition and we settled on 11. In Moldavia you don't want to go upsetting the spirits.
How to get there
British Airways (0345 222111) flies daily except Sunday from Gatwick to Bucharest; the World Offer fare is pounds 266 including tax. More cheaply, you can fly from London to Bucharest on the Romanian national carrier Tarom for pounds 211 return through Ace Travel (01494 463324).
As an alternative to the six-hour train journey from Bucharest to Suceava, there are flights daily except Sunday from Bucharest.
A fly-drive holiday with Intra (0171-323 3305) costs pounds 347 per person for one week, inclusive of a flight on Tarom and hire of a Ford Fiesta, based on two people sharing.
Who to ask
The Romanian Tourist Board, 83a Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE (0171-224 3692) has a brochure on cultural centres in Moldova, and can also supply a useful road map of the country.
What to read
The Rough Guide to Romania by Dan Richardson and Tim Burford (pounds 9.99).Reuse content